Having just completed biographies of Nero Claudius Drusus (Drusus the Elder) and his son Germanicus I was delighted when Osprey gave me the opportunity to dig deeper into the military aspects of the times they lived in. Combat 6: Roman Soldier versus Germanic Warrior is the result. It is a story that appeals on a number of levels. It is the account of the three battles that decided the fate of Germania in the Roman Empire in the first century AD. It is the struggle of two very dissimilar peoples eager to gain ownership over the same lands on both sides of the Rhine. It is also the tale of three protagonists, the Germanic leader Arminius (Hermann) and his wars against two Roman commanders (Quinctilius Varus and Germanicus Caesar) with a satisfying beginning, middle and an end. But it is also the story of extraordinary courage of the rank and file fighting under orders, trained in different styles of combat and with different weapons, yet both able to inflict terrible damage on their opponents. Remarkably, despite the asymmetric nature of the warfare, in the end they fought to a technical draw. The book attempts to explore the reasons why from the ground up.
This is where the Combat series genuinely breaks new ground and why the format appealed to me as a historian and writer. The bold idea of my commissioning editor, Nick Reynolds, of comparing Germanic and Roman soldiers according to a series of common themes, then presenting them in the heat of three momentous battles, and finally analysing the issues, reveals as much about the similarities as it does the differences of the opposing sides. As a veteran of The Ermine Street Guard re-enactment society, I was able to draw on decades of rigorous research into the Roman army of the first century AD, and of my own personal insights from reconstructing and using its equipment and combat doctrine. I was delighted to discover – through Facebook! - a group of enthusiasts in Canada, called Project Germani, who were very helpful in providing material representative of the Germanic peoples of the same period.
The Romans had no particular designs on the lands across the Rhine until quite late in their history. Their first encounter was accidental when a nation – the Cimbri – migrated from what is now Denmark and combined with Gallic and Germanic tribes – the Teutones – and together encountered Roman allies in the southern Gaul and the Alps who appealed for help to defend their lands. It ended in what would be Rome's greatest military disaster at Arausio – near present day Orange, France – on 5 October 105 BC. Only when consul Caius Marius (uncle of Julius Caesar) rebuilt an army of Roman citizens, augmented it with troops from their Italian allies, that he was able to defeat the invaders near Vercellae on the Raudian Plains beneath the Italian Alps four years later. Having seen off the 'Germans', the Romans were inclined to leave them alone.
That policy changed when Julius Caesar, while fighting to conquer Gaul, launched two punitive missions in response to pleas for assistance from the Ubii, a nation of Roman allies, against the aggressive Suebi. In 55 BC, and again in 53, he crossed the Rhine, famously building a wooden bridge each time in just a fortnight. It was a largely ineffectual exercise, but it made for great propaganda in Rome. A few years later, Marcus Agrippa was only the second Roman commander to lead an army across the Rhine, again to help the Ubii, after which he agreed for them to settle on the Roman side of the river at Oppidum Ubiorum, what we now call Köln (Cologne).
The border between Roman-controlled territory and barbaricum was not a solid, defensible line, but permeable and shifting. Roman merchants frequently crossed into Germania Libera to trade goods. Germans liked Roman wine, silver coins, and daggers; Romans liked blond slaves and amber. On occasions, Germans would simply cut out the middleman, cross the river and take what they wanted. The trigger for a full-blooded military invasion, according to the geographer Strabo, seems to have been a raid formed of three Germanic nations – the Sugambri, Tencteri and Usipetes – led by war chief Maelo in 17 BC. During the incursion, the province's governor, Marcus Lollius, was ambushed, his legion's eagle standard was taken and the resulting clades Lolliana, 'Lollian Disaster', became acutely embarrassing to the emperor.
The Romans regarded this illegal action as latronicum, 'brigandage': unprovoked raids on Roman communities were to the Roman world what terrorism is to our own. They were surprisingly common across the borderlands of the Roman Empire, and even within it. Maelo's marauding adventure was one too many for the emperor and commander-in-chief, Augustus. Fed up with constant attacks on Roman traders and their military escorts – there is a report of captured Roman centurions being executed – Augustus decided full annexation was the only practicable solution. The wars of conquest of Germania began in 12 BC with Nero Claudius Drusus – posthumously honoured as Germanicus, 'The German' – and continued by various generals, including his brother Tiberius.
The Romans were fascinated by Germans. Roman historians were intrigued by their physical appearance – big, brawny, blond, bearded – compared to themselves. (Many aristocratic Romans, including Augustus, employed Germans as bodyguards as much for their military prowess as for exhibition). Their lifestyle – free of the constraints of urban living – appealed to the Romans' sentimental reflections on their own ancestors who they idealised as simple farmers, taking up spear and shield to defend hearth and home when called to do so. A reading of Tacitus' Germania reveals that the Romans looked upon the Germans as wild and free in a way they themselves could no longer be: they were the embodiment of the uncivilised, but also liberated people.
It was a romanticised view for sure. Life could be hard on both sides of the Rhine, but more so on the right bank. Materially, the Germans were not as accomplished as Gauls and Romans in the plastic arts; but they were not primitives either. They were capable farmers and their ironworkers were able to fashion decent tools and weapons, as the photographs of swords and spears of reconstructed by Project Germani in the book show. The Germans were not one people, but many different ones, with different traditions. Indeed, many were not Germanic in the linguistic sense at all, but Celts, related to the Gauls and Britons: in some modern translations the original Greek word keltoi is translated, somewhat misleadingly, as 'German'. Ancient Germania was a patchwork quilt of independent peoples, some settled and living in peace as neighbours, others constantly on the move in search of new lands, others engaged in sporadic squabbles. It did not make easy the task of turning free Germans into law abiding, tax paying Romans. Indeed, Arminius actively set out to undo it.
The Germanic mode of fighting, like their lifestyle, was optimised for the forests, hills, valleys and fields of their country, which favoured guerrilla tactics, raiding and petty warfare. As I comment in the book, the Germans went to war in textiles. Similarly, the Romans optimised their combat strategies and tactics for set piece battles in the open or siege warfare, where their investment in military technology and dense formation fighting normally tipped the odds in their favour. The book examines in detail what happened when both traditions clashed: remarkably, it was not a foregone conclusion.
The first battle discussed in Combat 6 is Teutoburg, AD 9 – AKA the clades Variana, the 'Varian Disaster'. In writing the book I was keen to convey the point that it was not one battle, but a series of protracted struggles, an ambush over many miles of open and forested landscape, fought on and off for four days. Readers are often misled into thinking there was one great slaughter of Romans at place called saltus Teutoburgiensis, 'Teutoburg Forest'. As I explain, there are several issues embedded in that false assertion, not least the fact that only one Roman writer, Tacitus, who specifically names it as such; moreover, the word saltus can mean 'woodland', 'pasture', 'glade' or even 'ravine'. Where Varus and his men encountered Arminius has spawned an industry with as many as 700 theories for the location. Indisputably, Arminius brilliantly used his knowledge of Roman military science and exploited its weaknesses against Varus, taking three legions' eagle standards as trophies. It will probably surprise many readers to know that Teutoburg was neither Rome's greatest defeat, nor did it diminish Roman determination to retake Germania. Remarkably, there were Roman survivors who would return to exact their revenge.
In AD 15 and 16 Germanicus Caesar attempted to complete Rome's unfinished business – to capture or kill Arminius. By then the Romans were wiser and better prepared. In the first year of the campaign, the Roman army would not be taken by surprise by ambush but could not bring the Germans into the open. In the second year, having located Arminius, Germanicus chose the ground for a set-piece battle at Idistaviso – evocatively depicted from both sides by Peter Dennis. Here, Roman archers and auxiliaries bore the brunt of the fighting against Germanic shield walls and charges. Though beaten, Arminius forced a rematch at Agrivarian Wall a few days later. It was fought this time by the legions and Praetorian Cohorts.
The outcome was consequential for both sides. Arminius escaped, never to fight the Romans again. Germanicus returned to Rome the great hero, having recaptured two of the three lost eagles as well as Arminius' pregnant wife. He wanted to go back for a third season: he asked for what we would call a troop surge, but his request was denied. The new emperor, Tiberius, decided it was time to execute his exit strategy. Roman honour had been satisfied. Proxy war, not direct intervention, was to be the new foreign policy. That decision meant a Europe divided along cultural and linguistic lines (Latinate/Romance and Germanic) which echoes right down to our own day.
Corrigenda: a couple of minor errors inadvertently appear in the book. On page 58, the caption to the coin 'FROM GERMANIA' should read 'FROM GERMANS'; and the text on page 76 cites 'Aquae Sextiae (102 BC)' when it should be 'Arausio (105 BC)'.
Lindsay Powell is a historian and author. He is news editor of Ancient Warfare magazine and his articles have appeared in Military Heritage, Strategy and Tactics, as well as on MyHistoryDigest.com and UNRV.com. His books include EAGER FOR GLORY (2011), GERMANICUS (2013) and MARCUS AGRIPPA (2014).
If you are interested in this subject, grab a copy of Combat 6 now! After all, it's part of the Combat discount running all month - 20% off all of them!